Obituary Notice: J. Freeman Gilbert, Leading Scripps Oceanography Geophysicist


James Freeman Gilbert, a renowned professor emeritus of geophysics in the Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics (IGPP) at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, died in Portland, Oregon, on Aug. 15, 2014, from injuries related to an auto accident. He was 83 years old.

A leading contributor in computational geophysics, seismology, earthquake sources, and geophysical inverse theory, Gilbert was the author of numerous research papers, book chapters, reviews, and other publications.

There will be a memorial to celebrate Freeman’s life and career at the in the Robert Paine Scripps Forum for Science, Society and the Environment (Scripps Seaside Forum), 8610 Kennel Way in La Jolla, Calif., on October 13, with a scientific session from 1-3 p.m., followed by a memorial ceremony with a reception afterwards.

“Since the moment he arrived at Scripps in 1961 after being recruited by Walter Munk, Freeman Gilbert was recognized as a true pioneer in Earth studies, armed with his knowledge and drive in applying modern computational tools to seismic problems,” said Margaret Leinen, director of Scripps. “Scripps is extremely grateful for all of Freeman’s contributions to science and to the education and training initiatives that he shaped at Scripps and the young UC San Diego campus.”

Gilbert was a leading expert in seismic research. With his Scripps colleague George Backus in the 1960s, Gilbert pioneered a method of inverting data for problems such as Earth structure, a theory that changed the course of modern geophysical sciences and that is used throughout all physical sciences.

He was instrumental in establishing modern seismograph networks, most notably the International Deployment of Accelerometers (IDA), a network built with the backing of his friend Cecil Green, co-founder of Texas Instruments, that has transformed modern earthquake studies as well as areas such as nuclear test-ban treaty monitoring.

“Freeman is remembered as a mentor and friend to countless seismologists around the world. He will be sorely missed,” noted former IGPP Director John Orcutt and current IGPP Director Guy Masters.

Born in Vincennes, IN, in August 1931, he attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and received a B.S. in 1953 and a Ph.D. in geophysics in 1956. While at MIT he was a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow and a research associate (1956-57). He was an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1957-59, followed by two years as a senior research geophysicist at Geophysical Service Inc. in Dallas, TX. After joining Scripps, he held two Guggenheim Fellowships, in 1964-65 and in 1972-73.

Gilbert was the second director of IGPP from 1976 to 1988, following in the steps of founding director Walter Munk. Together, they established IGPP as a leading geophysical institute in the world—a role it continues to occupy to this day.

In 1972, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and in 1981 he was awarded the Royal Astronomical Society’s Gold Medal. He was the 1985 recipient of the Council of the Geological Society of America’s Arthur L. Day Medal for outstanding contributions to geologic knowledge and in 1990, he won the Balzan Prize from the Fondazione Internazionale Premio E. Balzan in Milan, Italy. In 1994, he was awarded the Doctor Honoris Causa at Utrecht University and, in the same year, was named Foreign Associate of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei in Rome. In 1999 the American Geophysical Union (AGU) awarded Gilbert the William Bowie Medal, the organization’s highest honor that recognizes outstanding contributions to fundamental geophysics and for unselfish cooperation in research.

“In the mid-1960s at IGPP, Freeman Gilbert and George Backus collaborated on a series of papers in an area that was to become known as geophysical inverse theory,” noted his William Bowie Medal award citation. “Clearly, Freeman and George are the fathers of this field and the research they did at this time changed the course of the geophysical sciences, broadly defined, forever.”

Gilbert received the 2004 Medal of the Seismological Society of America for outstanding contributions in seismology and earthquake engineering. Also in 2004, he received an honorary doctor of engineering degree from the Colorado School of Mines.

He served on several boards and committees, including the National Research Council and National Academy of Sciences’ Board on Earth Sciences and Resources, the IGPP external advisory committee, and the UC Santa Cruz Institute of Tectonics’ external advisory committee.

He was a senior fellow of the San Diego Supercomputer Center, an honorary foreign fellow of the European Union of Geosciences, and a fellow of the Geological Society of America, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, AGU, and the Explorers Club.

He is survived by Sally Gilbert, his wife of 55 years; his children, Cynthia, Sarah, and James; sons-in-law Henry and Francisco, daughter-in-law Jennifer; and grandchildren Dominic, Elena, Stuart, and Tash.

Colleagues wishing to express condolences are invited to submit messages for web posting to

Arrangements for memorial services will be forthcoming.


Tributes to Freeman Gilbert from the Ocean and Earth Science Community:

 I just got the information through MIT about Freeman's death and was greatly saddened to hear the unfortunate news. Freeman and I were roommates during our junior year at MIT.  He was a great roommate: calm, reasonable and unflappable with a wonderfully clever sense of humor. He would spend many hours after dinner sitting in the library listening to records of his favorite composer, Beethoven, while smoke curled from his ever-present pipe. He had one unfortunate incident with that pipe and would probably have chosen to forget that it happened. One evening after dinner as I was returning to our room I smelled smoke and saw that it was coming from our room. As I rushed into the room there was smoke along with a few dying flames coming from the wastebasket into which Freeman had emptied the apparently dead ashes from his pipe. After I had extinguished the remaining embers in the wastebasket I discovered that the only damage was the charred side of his desk next to the wastebasket. Fortunately there was very little combustible material in the wastebasket and it had burned out quickly. During our senior year we ran some geophone lines near a metal stamping factory to determine the potential damage from the vibrations to the surrounding community. We were also fellow graduate students at MIT working on PhDs when he was among the geophysicists who began the tedious hand-entry of seismic data for computer analyses. His amazing dedication, ability and ingenuity in this research was clearly a predictor for his outstanding future which touched nearly all of the geoscience world.

— Bill Phinney


It is with much sadness that I comment about the passing of my good and long time friend Freeman. He was a few years ahead of me in our geophysical studies and degrees at MIT. He very cordially provided advice and guidance to me during those challenging years. Subsequently, we maintained relatively close contacts as our professional careers proceeded to develop and  flourish. I express my deepest sympathies to Sally, their children and their families on this occasion.

—Norman F. Ness


I met Freeman Gilbert when I arrived at Scripps as a post-doc in April, 2000. Among different souvenirs, I remember when he came to my office from time to time to ask me to translate some French expressions he read in "Le Monde" newspaper.
More than a brilliant scientist, he was a very kind and humble man. One of these rare persons you will never forget the smile.
Mes sincères condoléances à sa famille et ses proches.
— Nathalie Cotte, ISTerre, Grenoble (France)


In my 1975 files there resides a memo from Freeman suggesting a search for the remains of Shakespeare's entombed body (employing ultrasound, at the other end of the spectrum from geophysics research) further testament to the breath and creativity of his mind.
— John Asmus, Department of Physics, UCSD


Freeman was the supervisor of my Ph.D. work during 1977-1981. He graciously accepted me into his group after my spending two years of seasick life on R/V Thomas Washington as a graduate student at Scripps. To have the opportunity to study under Freeman is definitely a most important and most fortunate determining point of my life. Earth's free oscillation proved to be such an elegant and fascinating geophysical subject under the foster of Freeman, and the IDA Project was on its way to shape the new enterprise. All through my later research career I find myself returning to the normal mode theory developed by Freeman and George Backus decades ago, inspired and enlightened as ever.

Freeman's class lectures were unique. I don't remember seeing him using notes; he just pulled all the mathematical derivations and equations from his thought process. That was an eye-opening experience to me, and a mental ability that I learned to emulate. Freeman's generosity and unselfishness have always been my work motto. Even his daily jogging on the beach immersed in thinking was a source of inspiration on me in my attitude toward life.

I'm saddened immensely by his leaving. As a Chinese saying goes, "A Mentor for just one day is a Father for life," that is how I remember Freeman.
— Ben Chao


Dear friends and colleagues,
I am deeply saddened by the news about the tragic death of Freeman Gilbert.
I met him for the first time in Moscow in 1964 at the the First meeting on Computational Geophysics and later once more in the USSR during his short visit, and in Scripps in 1990 when I was there as a C. Green scholar. I highly appreciated his contributions to geophysics and particularly to seismology, and was enchanted by his personality as a kind and extremely friendly human being. I send my deepest condolences to his family.
— Anatoli Levshin, University of Colorado, Boulder


I would like to express my sincere condolences for the loss of Freeman Gilbert, a major figure in seismology.
Freeman was my host for a Lindemann Fellowship at IGPP in 1974-75, and provided some additional support in exchange for which I co-taught the theoretical seismology course.  I thus gained my first lecturing experience under a watchful eye!
Freeman's gentle mentoring had a big influence on my subsequent research style and mode of thinking.
He will be sorely missed.
— Brian Kennett


I first met Freeman in 1964 when I moved to IGPP as a new graduate student, although not in seismology, seeing him almost daily for the next 25 years. He was a most kind, humble, and scholarly person. Not only was he a founder of modern seismology, he was also a founder of modern supercomputing at UCSD. I once heard from one of his students in the 1960s that he could write more than a hundred lines of FORTRAN code with no errors at a time when many of us were struggling to write a short subroutine without error. From his interest in analyzing digital data from great earthquakes sprang a need for access to the world's fastest computers, and to his lifelong desire to always have a major supercomputer center at UCSD. This greatly helped UCSD grow into the great university it is today.
— Bob Stewart


It was nearly 40 years ago that the first foreign IGPP seismographic station was installed in Canberra Australia.  From that modest beginning the IDA network has grown to 41 seismographic stations worldwide and surely is one of the most successful and longest lived research programs at Scripps.

Project IDA is a tribute to Freeman Gilbert’s science more than anything else for it was his work on the free oscillations from realistic earth models that led to the need for high quality, globally distributed, seismographic data that could be analyzed to refine the earth models.

My first recollection of Freeman’s push for such a global network was in 1970.  In July of that year, fellow graduate student Bill Farrell had deployed a modified feedback gravimeter deployed at Payson, Arizona, to study of the effects of ocean tidal loading on the Gulf of California. Within hours of his returning from the initial deployment, a large, deep-focus earthquake occurred in Columbia.  Freeman immediately convinced Bill to turn right around and return to Payson to up the sample rate of the instrument from a sample per 15 minutes to one per 10 seconds. The result was a rich spectrum of hitherto unsurpassed quality that revealed many modal peaks unobserved before.   

It was clear to Freeman that a few such instruments globally deployed could yield a powerful data set to study the structure of the Earth.  So he began to motivate the IGPP instrumentalists and a few youngsters like me to plan such a network.  In 1974 this planned jelled in the form of an NSF proposal for the first few stations. But the real catalyst was the support that Freemen obtained from Cecil and Ida Green. The Greens pledged $80K to buy the initial equipment for the global network, now named by Freeman as the International Deployment of Accelerometers, or Project IDA. This pledge provided the leverage to secure funding from the NSF for operation and maintenance of the network that continues to this day.  And the Green’s support of IDA continued until Cecil’s death.

Many landmark scientific studies were based on data provided by Freeman’s network.  Studies that had formerly required infrequent great earthquakes are now routine with "sources" two orders of magnitude smaller and proportionally more frequent.   What was cutting edge research when Freeman began has become routine observational seismology of today’s graduate students.

On a personal level my long and scientifically satisfying involvement with the IDA Network I owe directly to Freeman’s science, his foresight, and his continued encouragement.  He was a true mentor and friend and I shall miss him greatly.
— Jonathan Berger


Freeman Gilbert and I go back precisely 64 years---we met early during our sophomore year at MIT, and have never lost touch since. His passing leaves not only a gaping void in our science, but also a gaping wound in me, since Freeman was one of my very closest and dearest friends. I have always respected him for his many fundamental contributions to theoretical and computational geophysics, but perhaps even more so for his humanity and his wisdom, which served us fellow grad students so well when things got rough, as they inevitably do while struggling through graduate school.
Freeman was a true scholar, one who has followed in the footsteps of the most illustrious geophysicists of the past. He was a wonderful teacher and a unique human being—he immeasurably enriched the lives of all who were privileged to know him.
— Sven Treitel

I was so saddened to hear this news.  We have lost a very special person.  I had the good fortune to have lunch with him and Bernard Minster and our wives just this past June. He was, as ever, quietly perceptive with a bit of humor thrown in. I first met Freeman in 1987 when he was on the search committee for a new Branch Director of IGPP at Los Alamos National Laboratory.  Through the years he was a sort of mentor, and then co-conspirator, on how science at universities worked and how best to meld National Lab culture with it to produce good science. It was he who invited me to spend a sabbatical at Scripps IGPP during which I read over 200 hundred papers and emailed dozens of climate researchers, etc. on aspects of global change and was able to write several long reviews on that subject (had some great lunches with David Keeling where he led me through how to think about and read the CO2 curve). Freeman always could see how to grasp opportunities to get people together to produce new directions in our thinking.  He was a giant of geo-science if a quietly humble one. I once urged him to put his seminal papers on the earth’s interior together in a single publication, but he never did (perhaps someone could do that now?). I will always remember him as one of the major influences in my scientific life as well as a good friend.
— Chick Keller, retired Director of IGPP at LANL


Freeman Gilbert is being remembered by those at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) for playing an integral role in securing a National Science Foundation (NSF) award to establish SDSC on the UC San Diego campus almost 30 years ago. "Freeman was a great friend to SDSC and to me personally,” said Sid Karin, SDSC’s founding director. “When (American physcist) Harold Agnew and I presented the concept for SDSC to Dick Atkinson, he immediately asked Freeman to be our liaison with UCSD.  Freeman took a proactive role from the start and I firmly believe that we would not have succeeded without his help and his wise counsel.”

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